Denver’s unending construction boom has often pushed its landmarks into tight corners, and the city now regularly hosts emotional battles for its identity.
The latest came this month when architects Alan G. Gass and Michael Hughes, as well as Historic Denver Inc. board member Tom Hart, filed an appeal to the city’s landmark commission to prevent the demolition of legendary architect Richard Crowther’s house.
Denver-based MAG Builders plans to knock down, then fill in, Crowther’s personal residence in Cherry Creek North, at 401 Madison St., with luxury duplexes. Gass says that’s a travesty, and he’s not the only one. The house is widely considered by architects to be one of the finest examples of Crowther’s pioneering work in energy efficient architecture, particularly in his exploration of residential solar power.
“[The developers] purchased the property for almost $4 million, and we’ve met with [them] twice trying to find alternatives to demolition,” Gass said. “They paid too much for the site, so they want to recover that investment.”
Officials at MAG Builders were not immediately available to comment. The first commission hearing on the property is scheduled for Nov. 1.
Gass has been joined in his quest by a trio of other architects and neighborhood residents who wish to preserve the structure, led by Wyoming’s Vera Iconica Architecture. Principals at Vera Iconica also recently filed a historic designation application for the structure, given their part-time residence in Denver.
At stake is a home with incalculable historic value, according to numerous Denver architects and historians. Capitalizing on Colorado’s 300 days of sunshine a year, Crowther became one of the nation’s first and most articulate champions of solar architecture, historian Thomas J. Noel wrote for the Society of Architectural Historians.
“(Crowther) moved to Denver in the 1940s to give Lakeside Amusement Park a facelift,” Noel recounted. “He stayed to design solar homes at 180 South Dahlia Street; 100 and 101 South Eudora Street; 370, 378, and 386 Grape Street; and 379, 387, and 395 Hudson Street, all in 1950–1951.”
Historic designation requests are usually approved if they originate from the property’s owner, or at least with the owner’s blessing, based on Gass’s decades of experience, including working personally with Crowther. Buildings at least 100 years old — a general shorthand for preservation-worthiness — also have a much easier time getting protection. Applications that fall outside of that range are typically rejected, he said.
Less than 4% of residential buildings in Denver are designed as Landmarks, according to the city’s Community Planning and Development department. That translates to about 1 in 25 structures. Once designated, owners of the structures can also apply for state tax credits or restoration funds, according to Historic Denver.
Gass cited the recent opening of a Denver-based chapter of Docomomo as another local champion for preserving mid-century designs such as Crowther’s. (The topic has gotten a bit of visibility lately in the renovation of Tom’s Diner, now Tom’s Starlight, on East Colfax Avenue). There’s still lots at stake, proponents say; consider the unsuccessful attempt to preserve the old Channel 7 building in Capitol Hill, a standout of brutalist architecture that was deemed aesthetically unworthy.
As part of his drive, Gass has offered MAG options for preserving the Crowther house, which is actually two structures on a 12,500-square-foot lot. None fit the developer’s business model, he said.
“They have no imagination,” said Gass, a friend of Crowther’s before Crowther died in 1996. “Still, they’re willing to sell the site to somebody who has deep enough pockets to buy it.”
MAG advertises luxury homes in “Denver’s most sought-after neighborhoods,” such as Berkeley, Highlands, LoHi, Cory Merrill and the University of Denver.
Crowther has made lasting, indisputable marks on the city, even if some of his best work, like Colorado Boulevard’s 1960 Cooper Cinerama movie theater, was long ago demolished. Lakeside, the aging theme park northwest of downtown, sports a variety of his splashy designs in its ticket booths and entrances to rides — touches that have become marketing points for event producers. In August, Denver Film’s Summer Scream fundraiser built its theme around historical items from storage and interactive programming based on the 114-year-old park’s long and impressive run.
Likewise, Lowe’s Home Improvement sent volunteers to help restore and expand the Historic Elitch Theatre in August, donating $70,000 to the cause. Preserving the city’s oldest entertainment venue has been a two-decade, multimillion-dollar concern, and one that has enjoyed plenty of volunteers and visibility — despite its own uphill climb. And it’s for a structure that opened in 1890.
“Most preservation projects for newer buildings fall under the radar,” Gass said. “We’re trying to change that.”
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